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Deconstructing al-Qaeda’s PR to America September 4, 2006

Posted by The PR Cassandra in Posts.
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A new video tape from al-Qaeda showcasing an American convert was released over the Labor Day weekend warning America and Western Civilization of its imminent doom. 

Titled “An Invitation to Islam”, the video was a 45-minute sermon and harrangue, and the 2nd time “Azzam the American” (or Adam Gadahn from California) has been given air time by al-Qaeda. Previously, he was used to accuse Americans of war crimes and to justify the unjustifiable London subway bombings.

As a PR pro, and trained in Islamic Studies, I listened with fascination at this latest PR salvo from an organization (and an ideology) with whom we are at war. 

It received the usual condemnation from westerners in the media and blogosphere, as well as US Muslims – but what is missing is a non-emotional analysis of this PR strategy from both an Islamic and PR perspective.

In analyzing this piece of propaganda, I am using similar techniques used to analyze PR from client competitors. What I am writng, of course, is speculation on my part, but speculation tempered by years of study of Islam as well as the practice of PR.

1.  What were some of the main themes?

a.  Islam is the last, best and only true religion. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh=peace be upon him) was the last and greatest of the human prophets that God (Allah) sent from Abraham through Jesus. Your sacred books (Tanakh and The New Testament) have been corrupted, only the Qur’an is Allah’s true revelation. (Note: so far, this is mainstream belief.)

You (the West) have dared to insult Allah, and His last revelation to mankind, as found in the Qur’an and in the words and deeds (or sunna) of His prophet. Thus you are the enemies of Allah and will be destoyed in this world as well as punished in the next (through the ever-lasting hell fire).

b.  In Islam there is no separation of church and state, therefore we don’t want your democracy and immorality (aka personal freedom) – we are living under God’s law – called sharia (with the implication that those  of us living in, and fighting for, secular democracies are sinners deserving of death and the hell fire – Islam believes in both a Paradise and an ever-lasting punishment in the fires of hell for the wicked).

c.  Your leaders are only using you and don’t care about you (comment: a ploy used by kidnappers to break the captured’s will). 

d.  America is evil – look at its crimes – from the destruction of the Native Americans to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We are on the moral high ground, we are victims of your actions. we are justified in this jihad (Holy War) against you.  We seek justice – you represent injustice.

e.  Join the winning side – so that you will not face destruction in this life and the next.  Even the worst of you will be hailed as “brothers.”

f.  Allah calls us to destroy pagans and infidels.  Do not believe in interpretations that say that “the people of the book” (ahl al-kitab), i.e., Jews and Christians (the “book” = the Bible), are immune from wrath.  No, they are the enemies of Allah.  Christians are not true monotheists – because Allah has no partner – thus a belief in the Trinity is polytheism.  (Note: placing Jews & Christian in the category of infidels is deviation from mainstream Islam.)

g.  You do not bother to understand us, but we spend much time understanding you (he quotes passages from the Jewish/Christian Bible and mentions US anti-terrorism specialists, as well as satellite evangelists).  You also don’t playfair – anti-Semitism is condemed, but we can’t question “historical” events (ie the Holocaust).  You don’t shed a tear over the deaths of Muslims – only over your people.  You support dictators who are oppressing us, while preaching democracy (OK – that was the only fair point I heard made).

h.  We give you a choice – convert to Islam and find Paradise or face destruction here and eternal torment in the life to come.

2.  Are there any clues here?

a.  They want to impact American public opinion and weaken our resolve.  That being the case, they are feeling the heat.

b.  They are justifying their horrendous acts of barbarity against ordinary people to the Muslim world by claiming they are only killing infidels and doing the will of Allah.  Which means they are losing support for their beheadings and bombings. 

c.  They are taking the moral high ground for their base, by seming to be “inviting” infidels  – and they get to decide who that is (BTW that’s all of us – Christian, Jew, Shi’ite Mulsim, non-salafi Sunni Muslims, Hindu, Buddhist, Wicca and so on) to join them in the true religion.  Thus, coming across as caring for us, when, in fact, their aim is to destoy us, our secular democracies and impose salafi sharia law worldwide.

3.  They are positioning America and the West as corrupt, sinful, infidels, enemies of Allah (God), unjust and criminal.  This is black & white: good vs. evil and we’ve been positioned as evil. Such ridiculous stark terms won’t be believed – they are sounding desperate.

3.  Who is the audience?

Their audience appears to be: (a) their salifi base; (b) Americans who are (sorry to say) naive enough to think that by changing what we do, they will moderate; (c) those in the media and academia who question America’s values and this struggle, and who throw doubt on the reliability of the Judeo-Christian scriptures through “text criticism” (try that with the Qur’an and you’ll be under a death decree); (d) people curious about Islam and who might even convert and (e) Americans fighting in this war on terror, whom they hope to frighten and discourage.

4.  What is their aim?

Pure speculation, but am guessing it is an attempt to weaken western resolve, give a “caring” American face to what is basically a call to convert or die/be punished forever, shore up its image as freedom fighters for Allah vs. barbaric terrorists who will stop at nothing to impose salafi sharia law worldwide, and position America and the western secular democracies as the bad guys so that anything done to Americans and all “infidels” (that is, whomever they torture & kill) is justifiable to their base (justice being a huge value for Muslims).

In future posts, I will explore America’s current response, and recommendations for more effective outreach.  We are dealing with a highy educated and sophisticated enemy – American PR can be no less.

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“Web 2.0” Startups & PR Today September 1, 2006

Posted by The PR Cassandra in Posts.
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In a conversation today, the talk turned to the PR success of eBay, Google and Craig’s List, as models for a new web company starting today.  This led me thinking about comparing an online startup today to those who launched over 10 years ago.  Building a business and a brand is not magic, and entails a lot of hard work and dedication by many, many people over a period of some years.

Just because one considers oneself a “Web 2.0” company, doesn’t mean private jets and islands are around the corner.  (Nor did adding a dot com after one’s name ensure success in our infamous dot com boom and bust era – for some reason, people threw out the essentials of what makes a successful business during those heady times – namely, the need to make profits!)

It reminds me of the phenomenon in the film industry, when an actor becomes hailed as “an overnight success.”  Just as with tech companies, this is a wonderful myth. 

Dig a bit deeper into  the history of “overnight successes” whether actors or companies, and one is sure to find many years of hard work and exceptional dedication.

The “Web 2.0” companies we now see as successful, have histories that are not always apparent.  Great PR is done by an invisible hand.  In other words, while insiders know what it took to get to a desired level of visibility, credibility and users, it often looks like “instant success” on the outside. 

However, just as with new web startups, PR today is tracking the changes in the tech marketplace as a whole. 

Company blogs, tech camps, search engine optimization, podcasts and one’s web site(s) are now important PR tools, along with leveraging high-profile events and partners, building thought leadership recognition and developing champions among industry influencers and stakeholders. 

And yet, users – and media/bloggers’ – expectations in 2006 are far higher than when Google, eBay and Craig’s List started some ten years ago. (I think that much of this due to loss of faith in so many things in life – not just the dot com bust, but also the lack of integrity exhibited in too many places that as young people we are taught to revere and trust.)

What I found interesting about the conversation today, is that it hadn’t changed from similar ones I’ve been in since I began in PR.  Forexample, people seem to think that “media access” is some magical thing.  The truth is that anyone can call anyone in the media or send them an email.  Thus, simply having access to the media is not the problem for most companies.  It’s what is communicated and how it is communicated that makes all the difference. 

For a new web company launching today, the media and user climate is skeptical (i.e. tends not to trust easily), jaded, doesn’t want a sales pitch, expects the PR people to be market and technology savvy, wants community input/controls (vs. from the company) and expects an efficient, yet personal, user experience to be delivered and at low cost. 

In all of this expectation and skepticism, however, is an idealism – and if the founders have that and the company really exhibits it – than that is refreshing to us all.

A new web startup doesn’t have to be perfect or have all the answers when it launches – that would not be realistic or credible.  It does need to widen its horizons beyond a few insiders or the founding team.

For example, I believe that allowing select media, bloggers, and other influential market experts, along with an early adopter user group, to provide feedback and support in the early stages of a startup’s development can be invaluable for future PR and market success. 

All startups believe in what they are doing.  The successful ones also listen to what those outside of the company have to say (of course, they don’t always have to take it!).

I have rarely seen a company fail due to technology.  For tech or web startups who desire success — it is the users’ experience, along with the PR and marketing that makes or breaks – for it is great  PR and marketing, along with great technology, that draws users to a site and brings them back.